Caitlín R. Kiernan
November 11, 2001
Reviewed by Franklin Harris
THRESHOLD. By Caitlín R. Kiernan New York: Roc, 2001, 272 pages, $14.00, softcover.
In the waterworks beneath Birmingham's Red Mountain, something from the Earth's prehistory still lives — something that is best left alone.
But leave it alone, and there is no story, now is there?
While Caitlín R. Kiernan's first novel, "Silk," was a Southern Gothic horror story populated with weary outcasts, her second, "Threshold," draws inspiration from the cosmic mythology of H.P. Lovecraft. But its characters, while not outcasts, are no less weary.
The mix of Lovecraft's old formula and Kiernan's unique voice works splendidly, even at the end, where the novel turns upon itself, delivering an ending that doesn't quite live up to the buildup.
Chance Matthews has experienced more than a little tragedy.
Her parents died in a car accident years ago. Her grandmother and her best friend each committed suicide, leaving behind only questions. And her grandfather just died of a heart attack. Throw in a failed romantic relationship, and it is all Chance can do to keep her mind on her research.
Like her grandparents before her, Chance is studying paleontology. Fossils are her language, and the layers of stone in Alabama's rolling mountainsides are her library.
Then a strange albino girl named Dancy shows up with a story about monsters she has sworn to kill — monsters that now threaten Chance and anyone close to her.
And packed in Chance's grandmother's trunk are notes about an impossible fossil that could hold the answer to everything, including the rainy night when Chance and her friends Deacon and Elise saw something in the waterworks.
It was something that drove Elise to kill herself, something Chance only half remembers, and something Deacon won't talk about at all.
Too many questions and too little time, because the monsters are awake, and they are not happy.
Although born in Ireland and currently residing in Atlanta, Kiernan has spent most of her life in Birmingham.
Readers familiar with the city and its landmarks will certainly feel comfortable in her world. And when it comes to the paleontological tidbits scattered throughout "Threshold," it doesn't hurt that Kiernan herself is a vertebrate paleontologist by training.
Reading Kiernan is like following the White Rabbit down the hole to Wonderland. Her prose has the immediacy of a free fall, and she packs pages of description into a few well-chosen words, sometimes building new adjectives out of a few old ones.
You smell the grease in her roadside cafes and feel the damp chill in her subterranean catacombs.
Yet "Threshold" moves so quickly that the uneasiness and foreboding it conjures must arise from that lack of control we as readers feel. There are no breaks, no emergency cord, just the inevitable and sudden stop at the end.
But that doesn't keep you from wanting to get in line for another ride when the first is over.
This review appeared originally in The Decatur (Ala.) Daily on Nov. 11, 2001.